Labour's magic numbers

4th May 2001 at 01:00
The Millbank spinners should give up conjuring tricks with statistics and admit the scale of the public-sector recruitment problem, writes Alan Smithers

Why is it apparently so easy to recruit police officers and yet so hard to find enough teachers? In a week when The TES carried more job adverts than ever before, the Home Office was celebrating an increase in police recruitment of 77 per cent. Is this because of marketing, better pay and conditions, or higher status - or is it just that the Home Office has been spinning harder?

The "could you do that?" police advertising campaign, featuring Simon Weston, Patsy Palmer and John Barnes, has been widely praised. But, since the abolition of the generous housing allowance, pay in the career grade of constable has not been very different from that of teachers, and the work is, if anything, more onerous and dangerous. The standing of both the police and teachers has been affected by the tendency to blame them for the ills of society and a decline in respect for authority.

So perhaps it all comes down to presentation. The 77 per cent increase in police recruitment is in comparison with the lowest intake ever. Neither is there any mention of resignations and retirements. In fact, in the preceding three years, wastage has exceeded recruitment, so police strength has been falling.

At best, therefore, through the injection of some extra cash, the police force may be turning a corner. But even here the figures are muddied because it is claimed that funding for 9,000 new posts has been provided, whereas it is clear from the Treasury that at least 5,000 were to make good previous shortfalls.

The present Government's misuse of statistics is counterproductive since good news tends not to be believed.

There are, however, hopeful signs in the recruitment of both police officers and teachers. In the case of teaching, it looks as if the various training incentives are beginning to take effect. Applications in March were up nearly a quarter on the same time last year and there have been some substantial increases in those wanting to train in the shortage subjects. It remains to be seen how many of those applications will result in classroom teachers, but at least there will be more choice, which should impact on quality.

These first signs could, however, be ignored as the Government tries to over-egg the pudding. The claim that extra funding has led to the creation of 11,000 posts since 1998 (again the lowest point) nd that this is the reason for increased vacancy levels is frankly ludicrous.

There have not been enough teachers to go round for most of the past two decades. Pupil-teacher ratios are less favourable now than they were 20 years ago. An extra 11,000 posts on 438,000, or 0.025 per cent, cannot be a major contributor to the shortage.

Government spin fools no one except perhaps the Government itself. Having found ways of getting more people to apply to become teachers and police officers it now has to hang on to them. It has to ensure that the careers themselves are sufficiently satisfying to make the recruits want to stay. But continually saying everything is all right really is bound to take make it harder to tackle the difficult issues.

What is striking is just how similar the complaints of the various groups of public-sector workers are: family doctors and nurses, as well as police and teachers. They all point to paperwork getting in the way of the true job, uncompetitive salaries, and excessive hours.

Much of this is within the gift of government to put right. Better salaries would, of course, mean higher taxes.

Another issue it could address is the way initiatives are introduced. Much of the loss of job satisfaction is due to the increasingly managerial stance of recent governments. Too often they take a system-wide view of the changes they want to make without ever considering how these will affect individual workers.

In the case of teachers, a bottom-up perspective would surely prompt urgent action on workload and workspace. Why should teachers, for example, have to put up with a battered chair in the staffroom to do their preparation, marking and reporting?

The fact that public-sector workers have been leaving in droves should have been sounding warning bells for the Government. Perhaps it has, but then why not come clean?

No one believes that getting enough teachers (or for that matter police officers or health workers) is going to be easy. The problem is deep-seated and affects much of the industrialised world.

But how much better to say "we recognise it, this is what we are doing, there are these hopeful signs,but there are also these difficulties to be overcome". This would be a far more credible message than "now you see it, now you don't", or "hey presto".

Alan Smithers is the Sydney Jones professor of education and director of the centre for education and employment research in the University of Liverpool.

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